A woman at a polling station during the elections for a new parliament in Cotonou, Benin, April 28 2019. Picture: YANICK FOLLY / AFP
A woman at a polling station during the elections for a new parliament in Cotonou, Benin, April 28 2019. Picture: YANICK FOLLY / AFP

Cotonou — The people of Benin voted on Sunday for a new parliament but without a single opposition candidate to choose from, as rights groups warn of a crackdown in a country once seen as a model for democracy.

When polls opened at 7am local time, voters in the small West African state were given the choice to select their 83 members of parliament from two parties both allied to President Patrice Talon.

In the run-up to polling, protests have been broken up by force. Late on Saturday, some roads were blocked by angry demonstrators in opposition areas.

Internet access was tightly restricted, with blocks on the main social media and messaging apps.

Five million people are registered to vote, but on Sunday morning turnout was slow at voting booths in the economic capital Cotonou.

The main opposition parties, unable to field candidates, have asked their supporters to boycott the polls.

But Jacques Noutais from the Electoral Commission said the streets were quiet at the start of voting because people were at “Sunday church services”.

Those who voted encouraged others to follow.

“All is well,” said Edith Avodagbe, a woman who had just voted. “I would like to ask my compatriots to come and do their duty by voting for the candidate of their choice.”

That choice, however, is limited.

Election watchdogs ruled in March that only the two parties allied to Talon — the Republicans and Progressive Union — met toughened conditions of admissibility under new electoral laws. Their decision effectively barred the entire political opposition from fielding candidates.

People say they are “stunned” and “shocked” by the situation, but blanket bans on demonstrations ahead of voting have kept people off the streets.

Even after two ex-presidents, Nicephorus Soglo and Thomas Boni Yayi, urged people to take to the streets to protest, there was little response.

“The wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists, and the crackdown on peaceful protests, have reached an alarming level,” Amnesty International researcher Francois Patuel said, speaking ahead of the polls.

Before 1991, Benin struggled under decades of authoritarian rule. The transition to democracy brought a flowering of political competition — five years ago, voters could choose from 20 parties for the 83 seats in parliament.

But in 2019, legislators from the governing party pushed through a new electoral code.

Talon, elected in 2016, portrays himself as a reformer and modernist. He has defended the electoral code, saying it would bring together the scores of political parties — more than 250 parties in a country of about 12-million people — into simpler blocs.

But critics say the rules were too tough and bureaucratic, and opposition parties failed to meet all the administrative requirements in time.

Some thought Talon might have postponed the vote, to give time for the opposition to meet the new requirements.

But presidential spokesperson Wilfried Houngbedji blamed the opposition for not meeting the requirements and said delaying the vote was not within the president’s power.

“By what right can the head of state interrupt an electoral process?” Houngbedji  asked.

Several international and domestic observers scrapped their missions to monitor the polls. Some warn of the risk of unrest.

“Banning peaceful protests and detaining those who speak up against the exclusion of opposition parties from the legislative election will only fuel political turmoil,” Amnesty’s Patuel added.

Fatoumatou Batoko-Zossou, who heads a coalition of civil society groups, said it was important to focus efforts on peace.

“Benin has always been considered a country of peace, we have never known war — but it is not a reason to rest on our laurels,” she said.

“After all, we have always been told that our country is a cradle of democracy … and look today at what is happening.”

The president is, however, apparently not worried. Polls were due to close at 4m local time, with little doubt that the new parliament will back the presidency in its entirety.

“The resentment will pass,” Houngbedji said. “On Monday, life will resume its normal course.”